Let’s start off with a fact: America doesn’t elect victims to the White House. Michael Dukakis did not become our 41st chief magistrate by complaining about the worst ads he’d seen in 25 years of public life. Bob Dole landed no punches by arguing that Bill Clinton was knee-deep in scandal and an “unusually good” liar. John Kerry failed to score any points against George W. Bush when his campaign suggested he might postpone accepting the Democratic nomination so he could raise enough cash to keep up with us mean ol’ Republicans.
Think of the candidates who win. Ronald Reagan’s optimism in the midst of malaise, Bill Clinton’s determination to save the middle class, George W. Bush vowing to stay on the offensive against al-Qaeda.
The hour-long Sarah Palin-Glenn Beck spectacular on Fox News last week reinforced concerns about Governor Palin’s ability to lead a resurgent Republican Party. As one of those who voted for Senator McCain in spite of Governor Palin, not because of her (as Mr. Beck apparently did), I turned on the interviews with a healthy sense of skepticism about the former chief executive of the Last Frontier.
The sense of siege Beck and Palin conveyed was extraordinary. Mr. Beck suggested that it was impossible to go to Washington and keep your soul, and the Governor of Alaska agreed. They both commiserated about how difficult, if not impossible, it is to trust people anymore in politics (given that George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and President Obama have all come together on Haiti relief this week, this seems a particularly bizarre argument). And Governor Palin suggested that elites try to make folks like her feel “stupid” for believing in “common sense solutions.” (What those solutions are, of course, was never spelled out in detail.)
It was the political equivalent of a couple of teenagers moping about their parents and talking about Dashboard Confessional.
The most shocking moment was not the much-tauted failure of the governor to name her favorite founding father (her original point on why she liked “all of them”, that she collectively admired a group of men with strong disagreements on the role of a federal government who managed to come together and midwife the most powerful country in the world, is hardly a bad argument). The “Twilight Zone” music played when Palin announced that she had her son Track run a Google search for facts about the Statue of Liberty, in case Mr. Beck curved a “gotcha” question in her direction.
It was a shocking reminder of Governor Palin’s bunker mentality. Every media figure, even those — such as Mr. Beck — who want her to be President of the United States, is the enemy, always more interested in getting Sarah Palin to wear the dunce cap for failing to answer a Trivial Pursuit card about the copper lady in New York Harbor. I am not certain if it’s possible to overstate just how disastrous that worldview is for any modern leader.
Governor Palin and Mr. Beck feel overrun by the media and scared of Washington, D.C.. This is not the key to a conservatism that can win again. Conservatism needs to be bold, modern, and able to engage with detractors, not fear them. Governor Palin and Mr. Beck’s mentality is simply not the right vessel for this effort.